The characters were often damaged goods; usually someone had deliberately done them wrong. The lighting was dramatic -- lots of shadows and chiaroscuro. Cigarettes and handguns were ubiquitous. Liquor was consumed without ice or mixers. Payback was a bitch and happy endings were hard to come by.
That was film noir in its day, or maybe I should say night, since “film noir“ means black films.
We’re told the term "film noir" was first applied to cynical American crime dramas in 1946. A French critic, Nino Frank, used it in an article about films made during World War II that he saw as having something in common. These motion pictures hadn’t been seen in occupied France, because of the war. But the term itself didn’t become popular until years later.
If any of the major studios in Hollywood could be said to have specialized in making film noir movies it was probably RKO. In some part that was because RKO produced many of its well-crafted features of all types on B movie budgets. Clever art directors and cinematographers could hide a lot of money-saving compromises in frames filled with shadows. RKO was usually hurting for cash.
The protagonists of film noir pictures were usually men with specific reasons to be bitter. Life had taught them to put faith in taking direct action to solve problems, rather than calling for help. They tended to be spontaneous anti-heroes. Film noir females were more self sufficient than the women in most American movies in the ’40s and ‘50s. Such worldly women used lots of makeup. They were just as focused on getting their way as were the fedora-wearing men.
However, most Americans didn’t recognize these movies as being in a category with a special label until the film noir era was in the rearview mirror, style-wise. Thus, the titles on my list of favorites below weren’t promoted in their original release time as film noir, at least not in this country.
To me, it now seems the film noir era was a post-WWII phenomenon. It was influenced not only by the spooky German Expressionism of the 1920s, but also the gritty Italian Neorealism of the 1940s. Film noir was both a look and a focus on subject matter.
Timeline-wise that puts great movies like “M” (1931) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) in a category of movies that was a precursor to film noir. They are among the best dark-themed crime dramas that paved the way to film noir. But in a general sense, in my view both of them are too concerned with morality -- right and wrong -- to be seen in the same category with the best of the world-weary noirs.
Once society began absorbing the troops coming home from the war with their own damage, movies changed. Which means to make the cut this time the movie must have been released between 1946 and 1959. Naturally, it has to have been shot in black and white. Then again, although I’d like to restrict the list to American films only, what’s probably the best movie on my list, “The Third Man” (1949) -- made in England -- won’t permit it.
Without further ado, my five favorite film noir movies for today are:
- “The Big Heat” (1953): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando. Note: Sgt. Dave Bannion (Ford) is an honest cop who is drawn into investigating the apparent suicide of a coworker. He eventually ends up battling the local crime syndicate. Marvin is at his evil best as the brutal enforcer for the syndicate's boss. Yes, this is the picture with the notorious scene that has Marvin's character slinging boiling coffee into his girlfriend’s (Grahame) pretty face ... just for grins.
- In a Lonely Place (1950): B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Art Smith. Note: WWII vet Dixon Steele is dealing with lingering issues from the war. Depression and rage dog him. Steele, played convincingly by Bogart, is a quick-witted screenwriter with a dark sense of humor. Trouble is -- his writing has suffered. Maybe he needs a muse? Then the same day he's connected to a murder he happens onto a new girlfriend -- enter Gloria Grahame, at her best. A writing mania ensues.
- "The Killing" (1956): B&W. 85 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook. Note: This lean story about a race track heist put Kubrick on the map (he was just 28 when it was released). Rather than the feel of a caper melodrama, the presentation feels sort of detached ... like a documentary with a narrator giving the viewer an inside look at the crime.
- "The Third Man" (1949): B&W. 104 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard. Note: Screenplay by Graham Greene. This elegant murder mystery is set in crumbling post-WWII Vienna. Or, is it a murder mystery? All the characters are working an angle, so the truth isn’t easy to grasp. The movie’s distinctive theme music was also a hit in its time. Maybe a perfect movie.
- "Touch of Evil" (1958): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver. Note: This crime melodrama, set on both sides of the American/Mexican border, is so chock full of weird characters it feels like a cartoon. And, don’t be put off by Heston’s presence, the director uses his wooden, bad acting to a good purpose. For some critics and wags this movie marked the end of the film noir era.